Abe battles to prevent support slipping toward danger zone



Spending hours defending his security policies on television, scrapping a ¥252 billion ($2 billion) Olympic stadium plan and playing up concerns about China, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is battling to claw back a slide in support.

His approval rating plunged below 40 percent in polls taken after he pushed bills through the Diet last week to expand the role of the Self-Defense Forces. While he’s at no immediate risk of being ousted, he must avoid dropping into the danger zone around the 20 percent mark at which successive leaders have been toppled at the ballot box or by their party.

That means assuaging public fears over his defense bills and returning the focus to his economic policies, which helped propel him to a second election win in December.

An end to Abe’s administration and thus his plans for the economy would be negative for foreign investor sentiment in Japan, Stephen Church of Haitong International Research Ltd. in Tokyo, said by email. “There is the possibility that the Abe Cabinet is facing a terminal tipping point in its public support.”

The ratings slide risks distracting Abe from his so-called three arrows of “Abenomics” — unprecedented monetary easing, government spending and business deregulation — that he pledged on taking office in 2012.

“I would like the government to focus on Abenomics, but now they seem to be all about security and national stadium issues,” said Tsutomu Fujita, vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets Japan Inc. “I’m concerned he won’t be able to spare a lot of energy for economics.”

Abe’s need to avoid a downward spiral at the polls may bolster expectations for further Bank of Japan stimulus, according to Daisaku Ueno, a currency strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities, who sees 30 percent support as the key level to be maintained.

Abe is conducting a media blitz to reassure the public about the security laws that passed the Lower House on June 16 against a backdrop of street demonstrations, and are now set for debate in the less powerful upper chamber.

“Support for the security bills is unfortunately weak,” Abe told a Fuji TV show Monday. “This tough result probably comes because understanding has not progressed.”

He followed that appearance with further TV and radio interviews this week. Opponents held another large demonstration outside his official residence Friday.

A poll conducted by Kyodo News on July 17-18 showed 62 percent of respondents opposed the security legislation. Approval for Abe’s Cabinet slumped by almost 10 percentage points from June to 37.7 percent.

While Abe has largely avoided singling out China as a threat that necessitates the tougher security stance, the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday released photographs and details of what it said were Chinese rigs near Japan’s side of the East China Sea. Japan has long argued that such developments may siphon off gas from underwater structures extending into its own exclusive economic zone.

“There will certainly be further negative news in terms of the deliberations in the Upper House on the security bills,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Do they have good news? Do they have something to turn things around in the weeks to come?”

Fighting on another front to win back voters, Abe stepped last week into a dispute over the ballooning cost of the main stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, scrapping an unpopular design. It’s unclear what savings will be made, or whether voters will be satisfied.

Events next month are unlikely to boost Abe’s popularity. He’ll make a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and a nuclear plant that was shut down after the 2011 Fukushima triple meltdown is set to be restarted.

A possible visit to China in September to meet President Xi Jinping could help reassure voters that Abe doesn’t plan to take a more aggressive stance, according to Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director of think tank Asian Forum Japan.

While Abe quit as prime minister just a year into office the first time around in 2007 amid a similar slide in support, such a scenario is unlikely for now. No prominent challenger has emerged to fight him in a ballot for the leadership of the ruling party in September, and no opposition party has more than single-digit support ahead of an upper house election next year.

“It’s not a crisis,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow at The Tokyo Foundation think tank. “There is no alternative either outside the LDP or within it.”

  • Liars N. Fools

    It is sad for Japan that the strongest argument for retaining Abe Shinzo as Prime Minister is that all current potential PMs would be worse.

    This stems from Japan’s political history off too many politicians being in the “family business” of “inheriting” their constituencies from their forebears. This modern “feudalization” of politics has kept the LDP in power for huge expanses of time but also ossified thinking and squeezed out political talent and energy.

    • wrle

      Japan is more of a modern day autocracy than a democracy. There is really only one political party in Japan and that would explain a lot about Japan’s current situation. Lack of political development.

  • boonteetan

    Japan needs not fear China. Everything Beijing has done in the past decade culminates in aiming at thwarting external threat (imaginary or real) so long as the economy remains strong.

  • Paul Martin

    Abe should have got the clear message by now !
    Gaijins (2 million) have NO power or influence in japan, but it is quite obvious that the Japanese people are NOT happy about the government’s policies and do NOT want to provoke further animosity and anger from neighbors !

  • Jackson Lo

    We should fear China, but Nobosuke Kishi’s grandson is just as dangerous.

    PRC will show their cultural character and gamble away any economic progress they’ve made in the last couple decades…probably in a Macau casino and global real estate in the next few weeks.

    LDP are filled with a generation that hasn’t noticed that the world is quickly changing–within their own borders. Does Abe or his controllers realize they need to adapt with more guile with what’s going on.

  • Steve van Dresser

    Abenomics is considered to be a success for Prime Minister Abe, but it is not all it is cracked up to be. Two major effects of Abenomics are the devaluation of the yen, which makes Japanese made products cheaper overseas, and the surging stock market, mainly spurred by exporters. What is not quite so obvious is that these two effects tend to cancel each other out. Of course the Nikkei average is measured in yen, so the great surge is a surge in a greatly diminished currency. If you measure the value of the Nikkei in dollars, it actually declined last year.

    The only thing keeping the Japanese economy from totally collapsing is the sharp decline in the cost of petroleum. If the Japanese consumer had to pay for its energy usage at the old prices, Japanese consumption would have collapsed along with the overall economy.

  • Max Erimo

    Japan is a very undemocratic “democratic power”.
    The system now borders on fascism and Mr Abe seems completely happy with that. He only wishes to achieve his personal goals. And might one dare say screw the country.